Real talk from female track and field reporters on their experience covering the sport

By Jeanne Mack

March 27, 2017

It’s obvious when I look around at running media outlets that reporting on track and field and running in general is dominated by men. There are only a handful of women reporters who are consistently given the space to cover the sport in the same way men are. I reached out to some of those women: Michelle Sammet (SPIKES Editor), Carrie Tollefson (founder of C Tolle Run and race commentator), Erin Strout (Reporter for Runner’s World) and Meg Bellino (the first female staff writer at Flo Track).

Their voices and experiences are important to understanding the lack of women in track and field reporting, but as Erin Strout aptly brings attention to, the issue of a lack of diversity in the sport’s coverage doesn’t end with gender.

You’ll notice there are no P.O.C on this women’s running reporter roundtable and that’s equally alarming. Those voices are even less represented in the world of track and field journalism, and it’s essential we start looking at that and asking why.

How many women reporters do you usually see when you’re at a meet or event?

Michelle Sammet: It depends on the event and the field. There are fewer female writers than there are women working in broadcast and more women in roles like conducting flash quotes, than there are, say, female stadium announcers. Compared to other sports I’ve briefly worked in (soccer, basketball or rugby), the ratio between men and women in track and field is a lot more balanced–but far from even.

Carrie Tollefson: I don’t see a lot of other female reporters. I’m not one to ruffle feathers but I don’t like that every major sport on TV has female reporters and often times in my sport you don’t always have one on the major networks. Don’t get me wrong, I am very blessed and fortunate to be asked and thankful for New York Road Runners, ESPN, ABC, USATF.TV, NBC, Footlocker,and many others over the years, but I will continue to remind everyone that in my sport, we have just as many women competing as men so we should never have a broadcast without at least one female.

Erin Strout: In my five or so years covering running, there have been a handful of us, including my colleague at Runner’s World Sarah Lorge Butler, who are consistently at the major events. The other usual suspects are Sara Germano, Meg Bellino, Taylor Dutch, and of course Bonnie Ford from ESPN, too. The media rooms at major races and meets are heavily skewed male.

Meg Bellino: At small events, I was sometimes the only girl. At U.S. Championships or NCAAs, there’s a bigger chance of females in the press box or mixed zone because those events bring out all types of media, depending on the athletes and the year. I always notice more women in Eugene because significant events in that historic venue bring out reporters who may not necessarily always focus on track. Still, we’re definitely outnumbered. Even a majority of school’s SIDs are men. I’m used to it now after two and a half years, but it was an uncomfortable reality when I started working for FloTrack.

How does that affect your job?

ES: I’m not sure that I consciously approach my job differently because I’m a woman in a male-dominated field. As a newspaper reporter right out of college, I covered the police beat in an eastern Pennsylvania city. I experienced far more blatant sexism and harassment on a daily basis then. Like any reporting job, we’re all competing to get the attention of the same athletes at the same time, so I have learned to become more aggressive and less polite about waiting my turn to ask a question in the mixed zone. I look at women who cover sports like football, baseball or hockey and I give them all the credit in the world. They face so many more hurdles than I ever will—they’re the real trailblazers for women in sports journalism.

MB: You can’t let it affect your job, because you’re still going to interview athletes of both genders and you’re going to write about what you saw. I’m not going to lie, I used to be pretty self conscious in there. How can you not be when you’re surrounded by men, a lot of them older? But you just have to trust that you know what you need to do to succeed and you get your job done.

Do women’s running stories get handled differently from men’s?

MS: Women’s stories tend to be told in a more emotional manner than men’s. And I actually prefer those to the straight number or workout pieces you see about men. There’s a difference between portraying a woman as weak (which a lot of non-running specific media is guilty of) and portraying her as human. It’s that aspect of an athlete that gets people interested in the character behind the numbers and we need equal coverage of both men and women in that sense. If you tell me about a woman’s insecurities about her weight, tell me about that time she absolutely crushed her workouts at altitude, too. If you tell me about a guy’s record-breaking race, please also tell me what he was most afraid of as he toed the line.

CT: People might think we talk too much about a female being a mother more than a male being a father but usually it is just so impressive to see a woman come back from pregnancy and compete at a world class level. I think we are treated pretty equally when it comes to other stories involving racing, training, etc.

ES: This is tricky. I’d say if I’m reporting on competition, there’s no difference in my mind how I approach coverage whether it’s women’s or men’s. I cover the women’s 5,000 meters the same way I’d cover the men’s—a race is a race. I’m trying to convey what happened to the reader regardless of what gender I’m writing about.

But, looking at other ways in which I develop story ideas, it’s inevitable that female athletes have different stories to tell and issues to tackle. They have to negotiate family planning, contracts, pay equity, and many other aspects of being a pro athlete than men do. In trail and ultrarunning it’s even more pronounced. So naturally, coverage of the female runner is going to include those topics that don’t apply to men in the sport.

Do you think commentators use different language when covering men’s races and women’s races?

CT: Everyone I’ve worked with is very good at analyzing the race and what’s unfolding. There might be a few people that comment on the build of an athlete and that’s a sensitive issue. I try to stick with what I know and things that I think can add to the race or the coverage.

ES: I’m often at the event and not watching on television or livestream but from the stories I’ve heard or witnessed myself, commentary has improved in recent years. You still hear comments on women’s appearances when the focus should be on their performance. Sometimes the women’s race isn’t given as much attention, depending on what is happening on the men’s side. But, a lot of progress has been made, and it’s good to see that. It was a big deal when NYRR decided to start the women’s marathon before the men’s to ensure these athletes received the spotlight and coverage that men have always gotten.

I think a pet peeve of mine is when a woman’s performance is talked about in the context of how a man shaped it, be it her coach, agent, father, brother, spouse. The attention to her success is overshadowed in a way that rarely happens to men who achieve great things in sports. It’s just another indication that we aren’t quite there yet. There were a lot of examples of this happening during Rio, in various sports. To be fair, there’s a lot of time to fill and I’m sure if I had to talk that much I’d probably say some stupid things, too. I have the advantage of hiding behind my keyboard.

It also comes back to recruiting qualified and knowledgeable women to become commentators. Carrie Tollefson does a phenomenal job and is always at the pre-race press conferences catching up with athletes so she knows where they’re coming from when she’s talking about them on air. I hear Shalane Flanagan will be doing some commentary at Boston this year and who better to explain what’s going on than her?

MB: You know, I used to kind of block out commentary and just watch the race. But I remember waking up early to watch the Boston Marathon in 2015, and the commentators kept talking about the “small frame” and weights of some of these women. And it really bothered me. Male marathoners are quite small, too, but you weren’t hearing that. Distance runners are light, that’s just a fact. But why do we need to highlight the woman’s body and its significance when we aren’t doing the same for the men? It really bothered me.

What sort of things do you hear about female coaches?

MS: The main problem is, there isn’t enough of them, especially at the elite end.

I’ll never forget a feature by Karen Crouse in the NYT about Wayde van Niekerk’s coach Anna Botha. She described a series of interviews in Rio in which male journalists asked questions such as whether Botha was ‘always, or only sometimes’ coaching van Niekerk. Or whether she knew the splits of his world record race. Crouse described the situation as similar to ‘asking a carpenter if he knew the measurements for the table he had just carved out of pine wood’. No male coach would have to answer questions of that nature. No female reporter would have asked those questions.

MB: We talked a little about this at NCAA Indoors. There are NOT a lot of female coaches out there. Definitely not many head coaches. And I’ve heard someone people say some nasty things about them. As if a woman couldn’t possibly coach college students, male and/or female, for whatever reason and they were only hired because of x, y, & z. I think there’s a double standard there in the coaching world and I really hope it changes.

Who would you say are the founding mothers for distance running? Do we have a Prefontaine-esque figure? Joanie?

MS: I think Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer are up there for me. If there is one thing I have learnt about being a woman, it’s that we have to be persistent. Both of these women are perfect examples of persistence paying off and stereotypes being challenged until they crumbled.

CT: Joanie for sure! Look at all that she did and continues to do! She is an amazing mother and runner. I remember running with her and asking her about when she knew it was time to have a family and she was so open about it. Being a competitive, world class athlete can make it hard to know when the right time is. It is a huge commitment physically and financially but for me, it was the best decision of my life!

ES: Certainly Joanie—absolutely. We also have Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon, and Kathrine Switzer. Ann Trason is a true legend of ultrarunning—I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an example of a woman who was more instrumental in breaking through a male-dominated part of our sport. Those are just distance runners, of course—so many incredible women came before us in all kinds of events, it is difficult to name all the icons.

MB: I see Joanie as a Pre figure, but I guess I also see Deena Kastor, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher in that category as well. They don’t have track meets named after them, but those were the women I looked up to in high school and college.

Why are women important to the sport?

MS: Women see things differently–that doesn’t mean they are always right–it is just about providing different perspectives.

One of the best things about my immediate working environment is that my colleague Thomas and I honestly discuss our work with each other before publishing it. We are two very different individuals; different gender, different nationalities, different age, different interests, different background in the sport, and so forth. 99 per cent of the time I believe that the end product after a discussion is better than the work he or I produced alone. And I think this can be applied to the sport as a whole. If the same group of male, pale and stale individuals makes all the decisions, how is the sport supposed to move with the times?

CT: Because we are fierce competitors and offer a lot of excitement, entertainment, and unforgettable moments in sport’s history. Look back at what women have done in this sport, specifically: Wilma, Joanie, Greta, Paula, Allyson, Deena, Lolo, Shalane, and we know them by their first names. That in itself is pretty amazing.

MB: It’s hilarious. Championship racing can be so tactical, but think of the most tactical races you’ve seen. They were probably men’s races. Again, I’m not hating! Love guys. Am getting married to one this year. But women are FIERCE and I love watching them race. Sit and kicks are confusing for spectators, but watching athletes like Laura Muir, Genzebe Dibaba and Emma’s Coburn are so, so fun because I’ve seen them just go for it. That’s why women are important.

What kind of criticism/commentary do you get about your work?

ES: To be honest, I don’t get a lot of either. Sometimes a story of mine will strike a nerve on the anonymous message boards and I find it amusing to read what’s said there. Even if it’s harsh or sexist, at least I know they’ve read something of mine, right?! I enjoy constructive criticism and feedback—it helps me be better at my job. I don’t often read social media comments, though, because they can really be hostile or just ignorant. Who needs that? Not me. Nine times out of ten these people base their opinions on a headline without ever reading the article anyway.

MB: I would say that most criticism is good criticism. Have I cried from reading something horrible in the comments section? Maybe. But have I also laughed at it? Yes. The worst is when someone assumes you don’t know what you’re talking about, but when I was with FloTrack I dedicated a majority of my life to knowing the people of our sport, their times and their stories. So that was the worst, when someone said I wasn’t good at my job, but again I don’t know if that’s directed at me because I’m a woman and they weren’t used to seeing a woman on FloTrack, or they just needed to vent online one day.

Have there been moments where you felt your job was tougher because you were a woman?

MS: I remember as I was just starting out, I had a male athlete ask me out on a date mid-interview. I can definitely laugh about it now, but I know other women who have been in similar situations and you certainly feel like you’re not being taken seriously.

It’s got its pros, too though. Female athletes feel more at ease talking to another woman in an interview. The same for male athletes. Seeing a woman in front of them will put them at ease because they often underestimate the questions you’ll ask since you don’t look particularly intimidating. Then it’s only the mansplaining regarding splits and workouts you have to put up with, but again, it’s nowhere near as bad as I’ve experienced in other sports.

MB: There have been times where I have been talked to in a condescending manner, in front of colleagues, too. I always walk away thinking “He would have never talked to me like that if I was a guy.” And I stand by that. I’ve even told those stories to male coworkers who don’t disagree. Track and field is a sport where you watch both genders participate, and people working in the media should be no different.

CT: Yes, when I was late having my 3rd baby and the days were getting closer and closer to the LA Olympic Trials in 2016. I finally had him 10 days before and I made the trip! I still looked pregnant and my shirt was too small, I hadn’t slept, and I was very torn about leaving my newborn thinking we weren’t going to bond (we turned out just fine). I wanted to make sure I gave myself every chance at “making it” in this career. I think of how my drive, focus, and determination helped me make the Olympics and realize it is just who I am. Even though it was hard, I am so thankful I worked that day. I had the best seat in the house, watching and giving my perspective to one of the most exciting races in US history and I was home within 36 hours of leaving!

erin strout rio

Does running media need more of a female presence?

MS: Absolutely. Women offer a completely different perspective on some topics and one thing journalism should do is encourage debate. If you only present people with the same – male – opinions, you’re not going to have a good basis to form your opinions on.

ES: Half of the sport is female athletes, but when you look at the people covering it, it’s not reflective of that—nor is it a very diverse crowd. It’s mostly white and mostly male. I get frustrated when I see “expert media panels” put together for podcasts, television, films, or events and it’s a bunch of guys shooting the shit on topics I also have expertise to share. Multiple instances, I’ve spent a good chunk of time previewing big, important races—men and women—only to see male colleagues asked to do radio and television spots as “expert” sources when I know they haven’t spent a fraction of the time thinking about. It can be infuriating. A lot of people come to Flagstaff to do documentaries and films on the running culture here. I’ve been the executive director of the nonprofit running organization here, I cover professional running for a major publication for a living, I’ve lived in Flagstaff for almost eight years. I’d say I could probably offer a bit of perspective on this subject—and so could other women who live here. Yet, I see who ends up being asked to share their expertise and it’s not many women.

What are the steps for making that happen?

MS: We need more role models to highlight it is a genuine career option for women. A lot of female journalists have had to work incredibly hard to get to their current positions. My generation certainly had it easier than the ones before me.

I wish women would work together more like “the old boys” in supporting each other and nurturing talent, instead of putting one another down. I would love to see more women get together and encourage girls with an interest in sport to pursue a career in journalism.

When I got my degree in sports journalism, I was the only girl on a course of about 50. The year above me didn’t have any girls. The year above that also only had one girl. I was very lucky that I was pointed towards a group of fantastic women working in sports, who mentored me and above all, instilled confidence in me that I deserved my place in the industry. If it weren’t for them, I’m not sure I’d be doing what I am doing now.

MB: I feel like some women don’t realize that it’s a legit opportunity to contribute to the sport. Think about it. The Olympics are the most popular time for people to watch track and field, and they were commentated by men, with the exception of Sanya Richards-Ross during some sprint events.

CT: I think just reminding the producers to keep hiring them. I have been on camera 5 and 10 days after having my 2nd and 3rd baby and that is because I am honored to be and I don’t want to say no to representing the ladies and the athletes in my sport. That is a bit crazy but my husband supported it and fights for my role as well.

ES: We can all make more of an effort to include diverse perspectives in whatever creative media projects we’re working on, including female voices.

But it’s tough, because the opportunity for anybody to make a living covering track and field is limited. Only a small, fading number of publications pay attention to the sport to begin with, so making your way into one of those roles is difficult no matter your gender. I feel extremely fortunate to get to do what I do—I don’t take it for granted.

I do feel the tide turning more these days. Some of the men who’ve been around, covering the sport since the 1960s and ’70s are starting to make way for a new generation of journalists. But, what really needs to happen is recruiting qualified women and giving them a chance.

Jeanne Mack

Once raced in a poodle shirt which may or may not be a shirt for a poodle. Unfortunately the type of person who does not let little kids win at competitive games. Often cries while running. Currently in grad school to learn to write sentences with subjects. East Coast transplant to Flagstaff, missing NYC bodegas, New England accents and Rhode Island Del's, but not urine-and-vomit scented subway rides. Twitter and Instagram @jmmackattack